I didn’t find out about my black great-grandmother until I was halfway through writing this novel. In fact, I still don’t know her name -- circumstances were kind of misty back in the 1800s.
I know my cousin’s name though, and we have remarkably similar faces, even though she’s black and I’m a green-eyed Irish-looking blonde. She’s more involved in geneology than I am, and she shares articles sometimes, and I’ve learned a lot about black history from her.
The main thing I’ve learned about black history is that it’s a lot like white history, or any other kind of history, in that inventors, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, pretty much every kind of accomplisher you can imagine is represented. People tend to collapse history, reducing it to its most memorable sound bites, and we tend to remember the bites relevant to our own lives. Kind of like how I focused on that one female one-line-speaking extra in The Empire Strikes Back. Without ever saying to myself “oh yeah, they’re all white too.” Or the way I spent most of my life going, “yeah, black history, that’s for black people.” I had read the basics, Roots and Autobiography of Malcolm X and innumerable YA bios of Harriet Tubman that conveniently left out the part where she led union troops into plantations to liberate slaves (as well as the part where the government avoided paying her for a ridiculously long time).
I’ve read a book by Octavia Butler called Kindred, the story of a black woman who is called back through time to assist her slave-owning ancestor and is grudgingly forced to admit their personal similarities – in fact, they understand each other better than anyone else, even though they also despise each other for being what they are.
Remember my Hugo-nomination test, about whether I’m still thinking about a story the next day? I am still thinking about Kindred decades after reading it. Octavia Butler could write pretty damn hard.
One of the articles my cousin shared had to do with people who were light-skinned enough to pass. And did, resulting in lots of records falsification and plenty of lies being told about Sicilian or Moorish or Native American Princess ancestry to explain away any children with especially dark suntans. Until generations later, some nerdy descendants armed with computers and DNA testing appear to unravel the mystery. One of great-grandmama’s children apparently was light enough to do a race fade.
New databases are enabling historians and descendants of slaves to piece together family trees and identify patterns in the lives of runaways. These searchable listings indicate how often slaves managed to leave with their children, how some were able to pass for white and how many recaptured slaves kept trying to escape.
My first thought upon learning of my African ancestry came straight from white guilt – “I hope the connection wasn’t too traumatic.” Because given the times, I assumed it probably was. I’m pretty sure my ancestor was a she, given the way the DNA results work.
Later, my optimistic side filled in a few more romantic explanations – a liberated slave who fell in love with some irish yankee doodle dandy and lit out for the territories with him after the war. Or maybe a yankee abolitionist, standing beside his dark-skinned bride as she is welcomed into the family.
According to the DNA test, I’ve only got this one trace of African in the midst of ancestral Vikings and Celts – but she’s the one who shaped the bones beneath my face. She’s embedded in my core, hard-wired into my code. The historical details have been scattered like sand and may someday be reconstructed, but the biological evidence is clear.
I’m not telling you this to claim some kind of liberal version of the one-drop rule and demand the world salute roots I didn’t know I had until recently. I’m generally confused about race on the mainland US due to spending my early years in Hawai’i, where racism works in different ways. it’s easier for me to think about race from an anticolonialist standpoint, or a situation involving multiple groups crawling over each other like crabs in a bucket.
On the mainland, race is a long-standing two-sided war, with loads of casualties. Some people think wars are won, and they descend from an old-fashioned belief system in which maternal DNA contributes nothing. In reality, after a battle is fought, the survivors make babies with whoever’s left alive and raise them on the ashes, creating a new generation that can’t easily be classified as belonging to either side.
In my particular case, I descend from the side with the falsified records, so it makes sense that I wouldn’t learn about it until technology was sufficiently advanced. Also, technology happened to advance at the same time I decided to write fiction.
Having grown up reading books full of New Yorkers doing the high five, and baby boomers doing the high five, and other categories of people that I don’t belong to doing the high five, I recognize that omissions can feel deliberate, and intended, even when they’re not, and “yay us!” congratulatory sentiments can feel like a big insult to people specifically not included in “us.”
Sometimes white writers get conflicting messages about black characters: make them good people – not stereotypical, not evil or immoral, role models and paragons of virtue in every way. Except don’t make them too wonderful, because then they turn into magical beings, dispensing wisdom and miracles and losing all credibility.
When I sat down to write my story, I knew it should have a black character among the “us” group. The character I had in mind was one who sets limits for the hero, as opposed to the characters who encouraged him to be irresponsible. A female character, to contrast with a couple of bossy males.
Now as far as race in my story, I’m writing in a far future, over a thousand years from now. All the countries in North and South America reorganized, and everyone speaks a creole based on Spanish, English, French and Portuguese. Most people have changed their surnames to something catchy and contemporary. Medical technology can do wonders as far as reconfiguring bodies and recoloring skin.
Based on my experience growing up where I did, I thought that a lot of people might end up sliding toward the neutral zone, with lots of medium brown skin. They’d probably have the same uniformity-through-plastic-surgery faces that make identifying 21st century actors very difficult for a slightly faceblind person like me.
Other people would take pride in their distinctive natural features. There would probably be a few black people that would opt to go lighter but there would also be some people who would want to go darker. There might be families of black people – and probably other kinds of people too – who make a point of only marrying people who already look like they belong in the family. We have families like that in our current world. So I figured my fictional black character came from one of these close-knit families.
I decided she had started out as a privileged idealistic kid with a sense of adventure, who ends up as a battle-scarred and jaded secret agent in a war-thrashed city, working as the harbormaster under a cover identity, spending her days telling burly sailors where they can park it while meanwhile keeping an eyeball peeled for evidence of federal crimes. Yeah, I’m providing spoilers, and the character starts out very weak but that’s another one of my intentional misdirections; wait until you see what she does in the subsequent books. Oops, spoilers.
And coincidentally, I gave my character a personal detail that my cousin shares, although I didn’t know my cousin at the time.
Now possibly that came from great-grandmama in heaven, scattering coincidences to make sure I’ve got a blood relative running around in my own fictional future. Or possibly what I just said is a gigantic load of Irishesque verbosity donated by one of my other ancestors. No matter.
Regardless of whether great-grandmama’s ghost exists under objective scientific conditions, I’m going to assume that it does, based on the coincidence, if only for the limited purpose of inspiring my writing. And I’m going to try and honor her by including black characters in the “us,” and by making them strong honorable people that would make great-grandmama proud, and not fools or simpletons or stereotypes. I should probably continue reading more about black history to inspire that.